Louis Risoli, mâitre d' hotel and resident cheese expert at Back Bay’s classic French restaurant L’Espalier, retires today after 34 years and countless Cheese Tuesdays. While the transition away from the restaurant industry will give Risoli a chance to focus on his other passion, painting, the change is not without its challenges: Risoli told Eater he had an anxiety dream about retirement this week.
“It’s been my life, I’ve learned so much, I’ve met so many wonderful people,” he said. He will stay involved, though distantly. There are two remaining Cheese Tuesdays — a monthly dinner featuring a themed cheese presentation — over which Risoli will preside. The final event, in September, will be a Tour de Louis, of sorts, putting his favorite cheeses center stage.
“We’ll probably sing more songs than we usually do,” Risoli said, referring to his now-famous cheese-themed rewrites of popular songs, which include standouts like "Don't Stop Blue Cheesin’.”
July’s event was held this week, and Risoli said it was the most fun he had ever had at a Cheese Tuesday.
“I knew pretty much everybody in the room. They all seemed to have stories about L’Espalier and interactions I’ve had with them.”
Risoli never intended to become a cheese professional. As he tells it, taking over the cheese program at L’Espalier happened accidentally. When he joined the staff 34 years ago, the cheese program featured about 10 cheeses, all European. He took over after another employee moved to Bali, and as he ate more cheese and started asking questions, he learned more and more.
“I was eager to learn, so I just went out and did it,” he said. “Just the advent of Cheese Tuesday was, in a way, a boon for me.”
Chef and owner Frank McClelland came up with the idea for Cheese Tuesday, which Risoli said was a complement to the restaurant’s Wine Monday event. Risoli had to develop a different theme each month along with a different group of cheeses to present. The events gave him the chance to continue learning and to develop relationships with people who came to love cheese as much as he.
“I am going to miss the easy access that I have to cheese right now,” Risoli said, noting how nice it is to be able to call up distributors and bring in new and interesting cheeses. “I am going to miss the day-to-day relationships that I have with staff and with my guests,” he said. “I’ve had an emotional week, talking with people.”
L’Espalier’s Matthew Helvitz will take over the cheese program following Risoli’s departure. “He’s eager and excited,” Risoli said. “Because whenever somebody retires, they’re just giving someone else an opportunity they’ve been looking forward to.”
Risoli will not completely disappear from L’Espalier upon retirement but will stick around to provide some support in addition to overseeing his final two Cheese Tuesdays. “I think it’s going to be different than I think it’s going to be,” he said. “I’m just hoping it’s a great thing.”
Risoli’s relationship with cheese will continue away from L’Espalier as well. In the American Cheese Society Conference in Denver later this month, Risoli will be inducted into the Guilde des Fromagers. He received a call with the news this week. “It’s an international organization that recognizes people who have helped further the world of cheese,” he said. “I’m sort of almost shaking with excitement.”
Risoli will also be a judge at the American Cheese Society competition next week, and he will continue his involvement with several of the ACS committees and the Massachusetts Cheese Guild. He also said he would like to continue in a mentoring roll, educating people about cheese. He will lead a seminar at the Newport Wine Festival in September.
“Getting people to be excited about cheese is what I love the most,” he said.
The Wedge is a series in which Eater Boston associate editor Dana Hatic delves into cheese-related topics around Boston. Know of an amazing local cheese professional who deserves to be featured? Hit up the tipline.